‘The Comm Entrepreneur’: Penn State Alumna Discusses Business, Grit, & The Relentless Pursuit Of Passion
From the very beginning, Penn State alumna Stephanie Shirley caught the entrepreneurial bug.
“I had a blast selling pencils and erasers to my friends, managing the money and counting it, and just taking care of all of that,” Shirley said. “From a really young age, I loved pretending I was a business owner or I loved creating things and even figuring out how to market and sell things, even fictitiously.”
Many years and quite a few erasers later, Shirley’s pursuits developed into a lifelong passion for entrepreneurship and sparked the ripple-out effect often enjoyed by those bold enough to choose the path less taken.
“So I think that no matter how it evolved, I was destined to create something my own, be able to build from the ground up, and really be able to manage it with complete control,” Shirley said.
Since graduating in the Class of 2009, Shirley founded her own public relations firm, created a career-journaling blog that became an overnight hit, and secured the Alumni Achievement Award for her clear vision and client-focused success.
“It was kind of serendipitous that it just happened to be where I was led,” Shirley said. “And for so many reasons, I can’t picture where I am now or my entrepreneurial journey if it wasn’t for my Penn State roots.”
A graduate of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, Shirley founded Bennis Public Relations, Inc., at just 23 years old. Redesigning the common agency model to prioritize expertise and agility, Shirley built the firm as a sole proprietorship to deliver personalization and service directly back to clients.
“There is no one right path to success because even the term success is very relative,” Shirley said. “It took me a while to find confidence in this as my business model… There are more metrics for success than just the number of employees you have or the size of your office space.”
As a language strategy expert building content remotely, Shirley claims the unique title of solopreneur and advances the benefits of this differentiation.
“I feel as integrated and personable as a member of your own team,” Shirley said. “In certain career paths, virtual work is very effective, and it can help people save costs, which I then pass those cost savings off to my clients.”
Seeing the individuals beyond the project for over 12 years, Shirley customizes every effort in a people-first approach to communication management.
“I’ll create something I’m so passionate about,” Shirley said. “I build my team as I need it for each unique project, and then I manage it. To the client, all they know is that they are working with me, and that’s all they have to worry about… That’s really the benefit I provide.”
Leading the charge for diverse projects, Shirley recently coordinated strategic and critical communications during the pandemic. Enabled by the flexibility of her business model to jump on board quickly, Shirley directed public relations for Community-Accessible Testing and Education (CATE), the first COVID-19 mobile testing unit in Pennsylvania.
“This concept of a mobile health unit that goes into the heart of underserved communities and brings those services to people who usually don’t have the means or method of transportation to go to a traditional doctor is the new wave of the future,” Shirley said. “I’m so proud to be able to come alongside and know it in a unique way that probably no other PR firm does.”
Bringing life-saving resources to marginalized communities, the overall effort is spearheaded by Latino Connection of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Creating a communication path for healthcare access during unprecedented times, Shirley enhanced clarity through difficulty and addressed bilingual needs.
While the world was challenged by the unforeseeable time, Shirley’s service mindset delivered much-needed transparency during the uncertain and fearful moment in history.
“For a while, I was like, ‘Am I qualified to even do this?’ It was kind of that imposter syndrome,” Shirley said. “Some of us have been dealt a really hard hand and others of us have been granted more…so when you are in a really good situation and you have the ability to give back, what are you going to do with it?”
Taking action for the betterment of many, Shirley also channels her passion into learning and development for other aspiring professionals through her weekly blog, The Comm Entrepreneur.
Since its launch in June 2011, Shirley has written over 600 posts and writes more words per year than what is included in a standard novel. This summer, she celebrates the creation of 12 novels’ worth of content and recalls the moment The Comm Entrepreneur went viral after being featured on the homepage of WordPress.
“I thought I accidentally posted something terribly embarrassing to have it go viral but was blown away when I realized what was causing the traffic,” Shirley said. “I’ve never captured that ‘lightning a bottle’ again with that many hits in such a short amount of time but it was certainly exhilarating and inspired me to keep writing.”
In the future, Shirley hopes to curate her original content into a book for young females considering an entrepreneurial path. Today, she connects with as many individuals as she can to advocate for the creation of a lasting professional impact.
“From time to time, there is crying in business,” Shirley said. “But I can tell you, it probably means you are doing something right.”
Simplifying her personable approach, Shirley values the power of humanity in the working world. Consistent with this vision, Shirley recently earned the 2023 Alumni Achievement Award for her entrepreneurial success and unwavering grit as a young professional.
The moment is particularly close to Shirley’s heart, especially as she remembers her many hours spent studying in the Sackett Building or in her classic college apartment on South Barnard Street.
“It really is the highest honor of my career. A fun part of PR is I get to promote a lot of other people… I was so busy doing it for other people, I had myself convinced that I was too busy or really unworthy of receiving something like that for myself,” Shirley said.
Accepting the honor, Stephanie joins her husband Scott Shirley, a 2016 recipient of the same award. Together, they make up the first husband-wife couple to have both received the Alumni Achievement Award in Penn State history.
“We earned those awards completely independent of one another yet for so many reasons because of one another,” Shirley said. “Throughout our lives, Scott and I will continue to ebb and flow with each other… We’re just constantly finding our footing in that dance of ‘Is it your day? Is it my day? How can I help you or how do I need help today?'”
Energized by family and an empowering partnership, Shirley also balances her business with the joy of motherhood.
“When you talk about passion or strength, it came from somewhere inside me that I can’t describe,” Shirley said. “I said, ‘‘I’m just going to raise all three of you guys together. I’m going to raise my business, I’m going to raise my children, and I’m going to do the best I can.’”
Driven by efficiency, consistency, and agility, Shirley reflected honestly for today’s Penn Staters and provided insight into her ups and downs from her perspective.
“If you’re not failing to some degree, maybe you’re not trying hard enough, maybe you’re leaving something in the tank when you really could be going full throttle,” Shirley said. “The beautiful part too is some of these failures we see in entrepreneurs and businesses, it becomes their legacy…when you start to say ‘That’s not just a failure. That’s part of my story…what makes my story interesting.’”
Paying it forward by gifting guidance and time, Shirley will continue to pave the path of entrepreneurship for the next generation of leaders.
“I truly want to be a light and a beacon to say, ‘Let me tell you everything that I have had to learn about my own entrepreneurial journey,'” Shirley said. “Because if I can help you or save you from some unknown, some headache, some wrong misstep, that’s where my passion is.”
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